Leader: Our craven calculations in Iraq must not infect Afghanistan

The Iraq war was a ruinous mistake. The lessons from it have not yet been learned.

Two hundred and thirty-seven British troops have died in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001 - but the name of Lance Corporal Adam Drane should never be forgotten. The 23-year-old soldier from the 1st Battalion the Royal AnglianRegiment became the 100th UK casualty this year when he was shot dead near Nad e-Ali on 7 December. It is the first time that 100 or more British soldiers have been killed in a single year since the Falklands conflict in 1982, when 255 servicemen died and, as Sir David Richards, the British army chief, has acknowledged, it reopens the debate as to whether "the sacrifice of another British soldier is worth it". The sacrifices are not over. The number of the British dead will continue to rise. We have argued that the Afghan conflict, though its origins may have been just and necessary in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, has since become unwinnable and counterproductive, and the government should set a date for a strategic withdrawal.

The decision by Barack Obama and Gordon Brown to commit, respectively, 30,000 and 500 extra troops into Afghanistan illustrates the obduracy of two centre-left administrations bent on exacerbating an unpopular war, fearful of seeming weak on national security.

The Afghan escalation calls to mind the so-called "Iraq surge" under George W Bush. There is a dangerous myth that the US troop surge of 2007 defeated the Iraqi insurgency and transformed and stabilised that nation. But the actions of the US military were, as one commentator put it, "only one piece of the puzzle". Several dynamics were already underway that helped reduce the violence in Iraq. These included long-standing efforts to bring Sunni insurgents into the negotiations, with many of them agreeing to stop attacking western forces in exchange for pay; the declaration of a ceasefire by Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia; and the "cleansing" of Baghdad's mixed neighbourhoods, with Sunnis and Shias separated, by force or fear, before the start of the surge.

There is also the question of whether the surge in Iraq has actually "worked". Iraqi government figures suggest that violence has fallen over the past 18 months - yet in October, bomb attacks killed at least 155 people in the capital. Most recently, on 8 December, a series of co-ordinated car bombings killed at least 127 people and wounded more than 400 in the centre of Baghdad. Six years on, Iraq remains the war that won't go away. The estimated death toll for Iraqi civilians ranges between 100,000 and one million. Some victory!

Meanwhile, in London, the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war seems to confirm that UK policy was driven principally by the misguided belief that Britain should remain in lock-step with the Americans, come what may. "Hug them close" is the advice Bill Clinton gave Tony Blair in 2000, on how to deal with the incoming Bush administration, but it also reflects the position of British prime ministers since Winston Churchill. Mr Blair's former foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, told the inquiry that Britain participated in the Iraq invasion because the prime minister felt he had to be "as good as his word" to the White House. Lieutenant General Sir Anthony Pigott, the former deputy chief of defence staff, said that by taking on a leading military role, the UK showed the US that it was a "serious player" and believed it would "enhance" Britain's standing with the Americans.

Supporters of Britain's continued involvement in Afghanistan should hope that similarly craven calculations have not been made in Whitehall in recent weeks. As John Prescott says, in his interview on page 30, "I do wonder . . . having the privilege of discussing with Tony about all this - how did I go along [with it]?" The Iraq war was a ruinous mistake. The lessons from it have not yet been learned.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus